Can it really be seven years since the last film to feature Superman? Since then Batman has been the main character to wave the flag for the DC motion picture universe and Marvel Comics have dominated the superhero franchise with Iron Man, Spider-Man, Captain America, Thor, X-Men (along with Wolverine) and The Avengers all taking the major spoils in the box office in the battle of the superheroes.
So, when I found out that Christopher Nolan and David Goyer were going to be involved in the latest re-imagination of the Superman mythos, I must admit that I was more than a little excited given their track record. Something that I was less excited about was that Zack Snyder was directing (my trepidation coloured by the fact that I hated “SuckerPunch”).
I’ll get the elephant out of the room before I continue. “To Mr Zack Snyder, I apologise for doubting that you could take on this franchise. Admittedly, as I say above, my opinion of your selection as director for this film was clouded by ‘SuckerPunch’ which, in my opinion, isn’t a great film and not a film to act as the template to champion the cause for strong, independent women, in fact I still think it’s basically eye candy and titillation. However, with regard to ‘Man Of Steel’ you did a fantastic job as I will detail in the rest of this review. Yours….”
As you can tell, I thought that Zack Snyder was the right director to bring this more realistic vision, well as realistic as you can get for a story where a benevolent alien refugee takes on the role of humankind’s champion, to the cinema. The shots have his trademark eye for creating beautiful images. From the opening shots of Krypton which are far removed from the ice world that you see in Richard Donner’s 1978 vision of Kal-El’s homeworld (and which was replicated in “Smallville” to some extent), through the beautiful composition of the Smallville sequences, and into the epic visions for scenes such as Kal-El’s first flight and his acts of superheroism in his fight against Zod and his army of followers, you can see that Snyder has put in a lot of love and effort into this film by investing it with the heightened reality that was the hallmark of the Nolan/Goyer partnership for the “Dark Knight” trilogy whilst ensuring that it walks hand-in-hand with his own sense of artistry.
The screenplay by David Goyer and Christopher Nolan is a refreshing take on the origin story by taking on the familiar material whilst adding new tricks to engage the audience. The story structure is interesting because the film starts with the destruction of Krypton (via a military coup by General Zod) and Kal-El’s evacuation, then picks up in Clark’s adulthood with the story of his growing up being told in flashback. This helps keeps the pace of the film going, whilst providing points of background which runs parallel to the ongoing story to provide an insight into Clark/Kal-El’s character arc and decisions into why he has a sense of moral drive to become a hero. The final hour or so is when the film kicks into high gear as Kal-El/Clark (he isn’t directly referred to as Superman and his adopted nickname is only mentioned twice throughout the film) takes on Zod.
In addition to this, I have to say that I thought that the “world building” of Kryptonian society was clever, especially in respect of how the children of Krypton are genetically prepared for a role in their society, all except for Kal-El who is natural born and therefore has free choice, which makes for an interesting debate into nature v nurture.
Now, for the casting. After a couple of near misses, Henry Cavill finally gets to don the cape and he definitely grabs the opportunity in both hands. He takes the character of Clark/Kal-El and invests the appropriate level of gravitas without making the character po-faced. His is more of an introspective take on the character as he plays man first and Superman far behind as he seeks to understand why he’s different, whether he should stay anonymous or accept his destiny as a hero, and whether he should expose his secret as an alien being and trust humanity.
Cavill also invests the character with a childlike excitement which has been lacking, in some respects, in the big screen incarnation of Superman. This is witnessed in the scene where he takes his first flight. Whereas in other versions of the role (apart from the Clark for the majority of “Smallville” where his feet were kept well and truly on the ground) where Superman flies fairly straight-faced, Cavill’s Kal-El gets to show unbridled joy and excitement on his discovery that he can fly.
In addition to these traits, Henry Cavill can also handle the action as there are some fantastically executed action scenes throughout the final third of the film, plus he doesn’t just wear “The Suit” – he embodies everything that it stands for, physically, emotionally and as an image.
Amy Adams continues with her track record of picking great parts by taking on the role of Lois Lane. Ms Adams’s interpretation of the role doesn’t fall back on the damsel in distress role that was the hallmark of Margot Kidder’s, Kate Bosworth’s or Teri Hatcher’s portrayal of the character. Instead, as with Erica Durance’s portrayal, this Lois seizes the initiative right from when we first see her as she seeks to investigate the “Guardian Angel” urban legend that is Clark Kent, which leads her to come face-to-face with his secret within ten minutes of appearing on screen.
She also gets to take on the action, as evidenced in the scenes where she has to help Kal-El/Clark escape from Zod’s spacecraft and her willingness to participate in the mission at the end of the film.
Finally, she gets to invest the character with a moral conscience. I don’t believe that previous versions of Lois would decide to “kill” a story involving Superman, short of revealing his identity. Despite the fact that she invests so much in investigating who Clark/Kal-El is, she “kills” her investigation in its tracks – despite deliberately leaking the broader story to an online conspiracy theorist.
There is room for a little romance, but this isn’t the be all and end all with Clark and Lois striking up a bond of trust and friendship well before entering into a chaste kiss.
Michael Shannon makes a very imposing antagonist in the role of Zod. Thankfully, as with the likes of Liam Neeson’s Ra’s al Ghul, Zod isn’t portrayed as an out and out villain. For reasons that are explained throughout the plot, Zod has noble and unavoidable motivations behind the military coup he instigates and the subsequent actions which follow on his arrival to Earth. Granted, he isn’t Terence Stamp, but he isn’t meant to be. Whereas Stamp’s Zod is a power hungry dictator simply for power’s sake, Shannon’s Zod has a similar motivating factor driving him which mirrors Jor-El, as portrayed by Russell Crowe, being the preservation of the Kryptonian race. The only difference is the means to the end.
Now, on to the aforementioned Russell Crowe. We know that he can do gravitas and we know that he can do action, and he gets to do both in the role of Jor-El. Unlike Brando’s interpretation of the role, this Jor-El is no bystander, even in death as seen in the scene where Lois and Clark escape Zod’s spacecraft.
However, he manages to up the ante from Brando’s portrayal by making his version of Jor-El a parent first and a teacher second. As with the Jonathan Kent character, Crowe’s portrayal demonstrates that Jor-El, even the artificial intelligence version, has aspirations that his son will use his abilities for the right purpose and that he will be a rallying point for humanity to follow.
It’s almost a shame that Krypton got destroyed in the first place, because it would have been great to see more of Crowe in the role of Jor-El alongside Ayelet Zurer in the role of Kal-El’s mother, Lara, whose role is small yet significant.
Kevin Costner and Diane Lane are well cast as Jonathan and Martha Kent. Both actors finely portray the people who, alongside Jor-El, form Clark/Kal-El’s moral framework. Costner gives the role of Jonathan the appropriate sense of fatherly protection and caution, even to the point of berating Clark for using his abilities in saving a bus load of children and teaching a salutory and heart-breaking lesson later in the film about the need for Clark to keep his abilities secret until the right time, which informs Clark’s life choices as a hero.
Lane portrays Martha as the caring heartbeat of Clark’s life and the one who teaches him to focus his abilities.
Main support comes from Laurence Fishburn in the role of the Daily Planet’s editor, Perry White (thankfully no “Great Caesar’s Ghost”), Antje Traue in the role of Zod’s second-in-command, Faora, Richard Schiff as Dr Emil Hamilton, Cooper Timberline as the nine year old Clark, and Dylan Sprayberry delivering a fantastic performance as the early-teen Clark.
Whilst it’s, on the main, a fantastic film, the storyline does have a significant plot hole which could be problematic from a plot logic point of view going forward into a potential sequel, plus there’s a big question mark on Clark’s/Kal-El’s morality thanks to a single act near the end of the film which, I don’t believe, was a line that Batman crossed in the “Dark Knight” trilogy.
Speaking of the “Dark Knight”, there are a couple of blink and you miss them references to the wider DC universe, which not only points towards a “Man Of Steel” sequel, but the much mooted “Justice League” film.
“Man Of Steel” does a great job of taking the traditional Superman story and re-interpreting it for an audience where the viewpoint of a single person helping the greater good could be seen as an old fashioned concept. The production and acting team should be rightly proud for breathing new life into the franchise, whilst providing a firm bedrock for any potential sequel.